Northland Country Club looks to new management

As it seeks to rebuild its membership base, Northland Country Club will turn for advice to a new management team with nationwide experience. Next week, Hampton Golf, a firm headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., will take over management of the 117...

Northland's clubhouse was rebuilt in 2007 at a cost of about $5 million, which saddled the county club with substantial debt. Bob King /

As it seeks to rebuild its membership base, Northland Country Club will turn for advice to a new management team with nationwide experience.

Next week, Hampton Golf, a firm headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., will take over management of the 117-year-old club.

"The biggest challenge that Northland has been facing is just the change in lifestyles and where people are spending their recreational dollars. The whole country club industry has been changing over the past decade or so, maybe even longer," said Dan Markham, president of Northland's board of directors.

"We thought that maybe one of the best ways to deal with that was to bring in a management company that has experience in dealing with these same challenges at dozens of clubs," he said, noting that Hampton will bring knowledge of best practices nationwide to bear in Duluth. Northland will become the 24th golf operation/country club under Hampton's management and its first in Minnesota.

"They've got tried and true practices and a deeper bench of resources that they can draw upon than a small club can hire and provide for itself," Markham said.


Justin Kuehn, vice president of marketing for Hampton Golf, characterized his firm's approach to managing operations as "comprehensive."

"We manage everything from cleaning the toilets to sales and marketing strategies across all revenue channels and everything in between - food and beverage, ordering and execution, sales and execution, event sales and execution, housekeeping, accounting and human resources, all the way through," he said.

"There's nothing we won't touch when we take on a facility. And we do that for many different reasons, but probably the most significant being: We want to know everything that's happening in the facility. We want to know what's right, what's wrong and what we need to do to improve," Kuehn said.


Since building a new $5 million clubhouse in 2007, Northland has shouldered a larger debt load. Meanwhile, its total membership has shrunk from about 580 to between 330 and 335 today, by Markham's estimate. That's more than a 40 percent decline over the span of nine years.

"We do have some challenges with the level of debt that we're carrying, but we know that we can support it at the level of membership we have right now. Still, what we want is a greater level of membership so that we can continue to reserve money for capital improvements," Markham said.

He cited the recession as the biggest factor driving down membership. But Northland's numbers didn't appreciably rebound with the economy.

"Since then, I think it has been lifestyle-driven. We probably haven't been as responsive to the changes and decisions that consumers are making," said Markham, noting that the club's membership level seems to have stabilized in recent years.


But he expressed hope that Hampton can put the Northland back on a path toward growth by offering more programs that get whole families involved.

"The key will be to get the whole family out there using the club on a regular basis, as opposed to just one golfing member of the family," Markham said.

"That's something the country club industry has had to do all over the nation in order to survive, and one of the beauties of Northland is that we've got the only club in town with those kind of amenities, where you can provide that whole experience for the family, from top to bottom," he said.

Kuehn said Hampton offers more than just top-notch golfing experiences at its club operations.

"We have fun dining events and cooking classes for kids. We have dining with the chef and wine tastings and cigar nights and whiskey tastings. There are lot of different ways to make sure that the club engages everyone, not just the male golfer, which was at one point what clubs did," he said.

Kuehn described youth outreach initiatives, as well, saying: "We're big on kids' events and growing kids into tennis and golf and fitness."

John Kuenzli, Northland's golf pro, said the golf industry remains in a period of readjustment and that Hampton appears well-positioned to lend the club a hand.

"We way overbuilt when golf was really at its peak, and so all the golf courses that still exist are facing that oversaturation of the market. We're like any other business with regards to trying to operate as financially and fiscally responsible as possible, and with their buying power and their operational efficiencies, this is just another way to make most of the dollars we have at our disposal," he said.


Kuenzli remained upbeat about Northland's future, saying: "I think there's kind of a Darwinian aspect that's been at play for a while. The strong survive, and the weak close their doors. I do think there's a leveling out. There's still some attrition that will come yet in the industry, but I think it has leveled out, and the facilities that do things the right way and have the type of amenities and design that people want and value are going to be OK.

"I think Northland is definitely included there. We have one of the best golf courses in the state, and we're continuing to make changes and improvements to what's already a fantastic golf course."

Value proposition

While some restructuring of Northland's various membership rate schedules will likely be in order, Markham stated: "I can say unequivocally, there will not be a substantial dues increase from 2016 to 2017."

In 2016, Northland charged new residential golf members a one-time $5,000 initiation fee, plus monthly dues of $597, although those costs were offered at a substantial discount to people who joined in the spring.

Fees have yet to be set for 2017, but Markham said: "When a family is making decisions about where to spend their recreational dollars, there's a lot of competition these days, so we want to be competitive."

Kuehn said Hampton Golf will focus on delivering the best possible experience to Northland's members and guests.

He said the firm specializes in "growing both real and perceived value through re-engaging the customer, re-engaging the member, and then from that foundationally, what we see is membership grows from there. So you make the experience, and your best salespeople, who are your members, typically go and do the selling for you."


Markham predicts Hampton Golf will help put Northland back on a path toward growth.

"I think we can certainly turn it around, because we've got a really good core group of members right now, and with Hampton's help, I think we're going to be able to get us back in the 400- to 450-member range within a few years," he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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